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Spelling Bee Myths: How to Win, or Not

Updated on June 8, 2015

Spelling bee winners - and also-rans

There are a few people who know more about spelling bees than I do. Katie Kerwin is one of them. She won the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee in 1979. I finished 89th. (That’s out of 109. I was the only contestant from New Mexico, but some East Coast states had several.) Much has changed in the 32 years since then. Now there are movies about the national spelling bee, it has preliminaries and semifinals, and 274 contestants. (One commenter on this article pointed out this article about the 1979 win, saying the missed words in 1979 would be unthinkable at the national level today.) But I think some myths about the bee are perennial, and I’d like to explain how things really work.

2011 National Spelling Bee Winner

Sukanya Roy, 2011 National Champion, on the word cymotrichous.  Would I have spelled that right?  Maybe.  Maybe not.
Sukanya Roy, 2011 National Champion, on the word cymotrichous. Would I have spelled that right? Maybe. Maybe not. | Source

Spelling bee winners may not be who you think

In elementary school, I liked our class spelling bees because I usually won them.  Then I won the school spelling bee.  That was fun, but alarming.  I didn’t know what to do with all the attention I suddenly got.  I went to the county spelling bee and accidentally managed to win that too.  I remember going to Albuquerque for the state spelling bee and wishing it were over with, so I could go on with normal life.  But a few hours later, somehow I was the winner.  I was impressed with all the stuff I got for winning, but didn’t think it made up for having to study during summer vacation.  I hadn’t studied much up to that point, but my parents and friends strongly suggested I’d better act serious, now that I was representing not just myself but the state of New Mexico. 

I’m living proof that one can win a lot of spelling bees without a good attitude, a good work ethic, or even a strong desire to win.

Here are some more myths:

Spelling bee myth 1: the winner is the best speller

The spelling bee winner is the luckiest speller. The most important factor in winning a bee is that your opponents miss on their words, because the longer the bee goes on, the more likely you’ll get a word you don’t know and can’t guess. There are lots of irregularly-spelled words in English that even a well-read 14-year-old hasn’t come across. For instance, at that age I knew and could spell “plateau”. Obviously I wasn’t too clear on the pronunciation, because someone at the New Mexico state spelling bee, down the line from me, got what I thought was that word, and I just knew they were spelling it horribly wrong, as p-l-a-t-o-o-n. I was shocked to hear that “platoon” was a word, and the correct word. I’d never heard of it. If it had been my word, I’d have been out. But I got a word I could spell, and that person missed on something else.

So, wide experience with words helps, but then there is the presence-of-mind factor. It’s uncommon to be perfectly at ease before an audience at that age. I lost at the level of the school spelling bee one year because I was nervous, the pronouncer pronounced “selfish” very slowly and carefully, and I had just learned about amoebas. I very carefully spelled c-e-l-l-f-i-s-h. After that, I always asked for a definition! If the top spellers seem paranoid about asking for definitions, word origins, and everything, that’s why. Imagine misspelling “selfish” on national TV.

Not a myth: bee winners are good spellers

I don’t see how one could get to the national, or even state, spelling bee totally by luck.  There are just too many good spellers to compete against, and the lingua franca we call English has so many words from all over.  You have to be something of a connoisseur of words. 

Are you a word connoisseur?

What is a gbo?

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Spelling bee myth 2: spelling is important

What really impressed me about spelling bees was all the stuff you get for luck and for possessing a talent of absolutely no character value. A thesaurus, a trophy, a Seiko watch, a Zenith radio/record player/tape deck that 32 years later still sort of works, an all-expenses-paid trip to the Mayflower Hotel in Washington DC, not to mention all the articles and pictures about me in local papers. And that’s for someone who finished in the bottom quarter of the national bee! It seemed way out of proportion to the importance of spelling in everyday life. I think Mark Twain expressed well the (lack of) importance of spelling in his essay about how he always won the spelling medal in school. (I also like the way the Humbug puts it in Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth: “A slavish concern for the composition of words is the sign of a bankrupt intellect.”)

Since spellchecking, it’s possible to spell very badly and still communicate well. Spelling helps in understanding word derivation, which is important for precise use of language, but precise use of language is lost on the average American. So I just can’t see calling spelling important for character or even career purposes.

Not a myth: spelling is useful

I’m not sure people notice good spelling, but they do notice the lack of it.  And they gleefully point it out.  Maybe even a bad speller likes to think that someone else is worse.  Note to spelling bee winners: it is fun to go around pointing out that you won the bee.  People get very impressed.  They almost revere you – until you make your next typo.

Spelling bee myth 3: you can win by studying hard

Not studying at all can help you to lose. But especially at the higher levels, spelling bees are like achievement tests: studying for a week or a month won’t make up for what you’ve neglected all your life. My friends who got straight A’s in school and PhDs and such in college did well in school spelling bees, but not at county or state spelling bees. Maybe spelling bees are a good taste of life outside school, where academic effort is of only limited value. Although real life depends less on luck and more on just plain hard work.

To win a spelling bee, you can and should learn all the words in the spelling bee word list. Any previous years’ word lists you can get your hands on are also a good idea. But after that, the next most useful spelling bee word list is Merriam-Webster’s Third International.

Not a myth: studying is its own reward

Mom looked up the definitions of the words in the 1979 word list and read them on tape for me so I could practice spelling them. It was a very nice tool and meant a lot of work for her (though I think she enjoyed learning the words too.) I don’t recall that any of those words ever specifically helped me in a bee, but I still remember them. (And I am still looking for excuses to show off how I can spell “bouillabaisse”.) Mom and I both liked finding out trivia such as the two words (and one was the winning word in 1981) pronounced the same way and based on the same Greek word, but different parts of speech with different meanings: the noun sarcophagus, a coffin, and the adjective sarcophagous, eating dead meat.

Spelling test

How do you spell that stuff you make chicken soup out of?

See results

Spelling bee myth 4: spelling bee parents are neurotic

Possibly in some cases, but I don’t see where they’re worse than any parents who want their kids to do well in school. Since luck is such a large part of spelling bee success, and nervousness is such a large part of spelling bee disaster, I doubt that it works anyway to drive kids harder than they care to do on their own. I think my parents were as surprised as I was when I won the state spelling bee.

Not a myth: spelling bee winners are pretty good students

As I remember, at the school level the spellers were generally the same ones who were in the best reading groups in first grade, and in AP classes and band or orchestra in twelfth grade.  BUT, at the county level or above, spellers seemed to be good students, but NOT the best students.  My theory is: reading well helps both spelling and academic success, but talent at spelling isn’t closely related to academic success.

For me the biggest reason I spelled well was that I learned to read when I was three, so I had seen a lot of words by the time I was twelve.  (For the record, I did not like to read when I was three, but now I think it’s one of the best things that happened to me.)  My brother learned to read at least that early, and he is a good speller, but no competition to me.  He merely got straight A’s and a PhD.  

Yes, These Are Normal Spellers

Spelling bee myth 5: winners know all the words

Winners know a lot of sound patterns. To know the patterns, you do have to know a lot of words, but a lot of winning is good guessing. The word with which I won the county spelling bee was “seine”, which I’d never heard of. Being told that it was some sort of fishnet, and remembering a French river mentioned in the story of Herbie the Love Bug, I guessed they might be related, so I spelled it that way. That wild guess was right. Wild guessing is much more fun than actually knowing the word.

One time, a friend, hearing I’d been to the National Spelling Bee, said he had a word I would never get, which he pronounced “thonic”. I thought: (1) there must be a trick to this, so it’s not spelled as it sounds (2) it seems sort of Greek, like “marathon” (3) there was a science fiction book I’d seen once with a title I’d wondered how to pronounce, (4) if the title were Greek, it might be pronounced that way (5) can’t think of anything more likely. So I spelled c-h-t-h-o-n-i-c. It was over a decade before "autochthonous" became the winning word at the 2004 National Spelling Bee. This was better than winning a spelling bee - I’d never before seen anyone literally take off his hat and jump on it.

Not a myth: there are better ways to measure spelling ability

If you really wanted to find the absolute best speller under 15 in the United States, you’d have to do something very different from a bee.  A written test, with 1,000, or maybe 10,000, extremely difficult words, should sort out the good from the best. 

But it wouldn’t be very exciting.  In the end, a spelling bee is, like the Olympics, about who is the best man, on the day, under the circumstances.  It’s a game, and should be treated as one.  

When Webster's Third International just isn't enough

Why do you need the compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary?

See results

Mayflower Hotel

The 1979 National Spelling Bee was held at the Mayflower Hotel.  I was most impressed with its multi-story letter drops.
The 1979 National Spelling Bee was held at the Mayflower Hotel. I was most impressed with its multi-story letter drops. | Source

Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee: Myths aside, what's it like?

It was 1979. I had just finished sixth grade. There weren’t many of us younger than eighth grade; every year’s experience at that age greatly increases your advantage in words you’re familiar with.

They had lots of activities planned for the week of the bee, all of which were fun, including the two whole hours scheduled for a boring-sounding place called the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. If I learned nothing else that week, I learned museums are not boring, least of all the Smithsonians! I could have lived in the Air and Space Museum for a week.

I was somewhat impressed with the Mayflower Hotel; at 12 years old I didn’t know much, but I could see it was a fancy place. And it had this beautiful letter drop that I loved to watch envelopes fall through. I’d never seen something like that. In New Mexico, the mountains are tall, not the buildings.

The tour of Washington DC impressed me very much. I was amazed to see for real the things I’d read about in books. My favorite was the Lincoln Monument; I cried in the Ford Theater.

Somewhere in all that, we had a spelling bee. I can’t remember how many words I got right, or what they were. I remember the word I missed on. Baroness, the wife of a baron, or a female baron. I understood the word, but I was half thinking of barrenness, and double letters, or letters that I think might be double, are even today my biggest difficulty in spelling. So I combined the words and spelled b-a-r-o-n-n-e-s-s. I think I realized it was wrong before I finished. But you can’t go back. (Another good life lesson.)

When we missed a word, we were to leave the podium, walk out one door, and come in the back of the room, where we could join our parents in the audience. I was grateful for that walk outside, so I could cry a bit in private. I was happy to be done with the whole spelling thing, so I could quit studying and enjoy the rest of my week in Washington DC. But I was mad at myself for missing a word I should have known.

The 1979 bee was won by Katie Kerwin of Denver, Colorado. As the national champion, she got to choose between a color TV and a set of leather-bound encyclopedias. I thought the color TV would be much more fun, so I was somewhat disgusted with Katie, who picked the encyclopedias. Thirty-two years later, of course, a 1979 color TV is of no value, while even in the age of the Internet, encyclopedias have value. Especially if you’re homeschooling. I don’t know if she is, but I ran across a couple relatives of Katie’s in a homeschool spelling bee recently, and recognized the family name. Katie did go on to become a journalist for the Rocky Mountain News and a commentator on the national spelling bee.

The National Spelling Bee: it really is just a game, but so is the Super Bowl, and you can’t win the Super Bowl at 14. The Bee is pretty exciting.

Yep, we're word nerds: the funniest book I know about spelling and English


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